INNOVATIVE organisations are being urged to take part in a pioneering initiative to tackle the major health issues associated with social isolation in the North East.
Companies are being invited to apply for funding as part of Durham Smart County, the open innovation programme which has seen Durham County Council join forces with health organisations, universities, community groups, and private companies.
The programme will open up longstanding societal challenges to new thinking, stimulating the development of innovative products and services which will make a difference to people’s lives.
The healthcare issues associated with social isolation include falls, malnutrition, heart disease, mental health and many others. By supporting companies to develop products and services that alleviate social isolation, it is hoped that this will have a long-term effect on people’s health.
The funding is being managed under Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) guidelines, an approach long since adopted by Innovate UK, but it is believed that Durham County Council is the first local authority to implement such a scheme, using its existing procurement processes to “buy” innovation.
Leader of Durham County Council, Councillor Simon Henig, said: “I’m very proud of this project which marks us out as one of the most innovative local authorities in the country.
“With Durham Smart County we are rallying our local collective knowledge, expertise, resources and networks, to strive towards a more prosperous County Durham, with a particular focus in this case, on our health inequalities.
“I have every confidence that this partnership with local communities, academia and businesses will make a real and tangible difference to the lives of many people.”
Catherine Johns, director of innovation at Business Durham, the economic development company for County Durham working on Smart County on behalf of Durham County Council, said the key was a willingness of the county council to act as a ‘lead customer’, supporting businesses through early stage exploration of concepts as they developed new products and services.
“Many of the world’s most famous companies started on the back of early stage contracts from governments: Vodafone spun out of Racal, a company built on contracts from the MoD to develop wireless technology,” she said.
“It’s pioneering for a local authority to do this. It is bringing together people who would never normally interact and sharing knowledge across disciplines and sectors. It’s about using local capabilities to tackle local health issues but then having the right support to scale up those products and services globally.”
Hans Möller, innovation director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership said: "Innovation is the key to growing our economy so to see Durham County Council leading the way with its Durham Smart County open innovation programme is fantastic for the North East LEP region.
"It’s a great example of how we’re using innovation to tackle issues that matter the most; health and wellbeing being one of them. As our population ages and many of us continue to work past the age of 65, it’s important we ensure people still feel connected to their community. This is a unique approach to tackling a social problem.”
Initially £100,000 is being made available to companies to develop and scale up concepts and the deadline is 31st March. For more information, visit www.businessdurham.co.uk/smartcounty